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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Expert Generalists and Innovative Organizations

What do the great innovators have in common? Looking at examples from Picasso to Kepler, Art Markman calls these men expert generalists. They seem to know a lot about a wide variety of topics, and their wide knowledge base supports their creativity.

Markman identifies two personality traits that are key for expert generalists: Openness to Experience and Need for Cognition. Can we also expect to find these traits in innovative organizations?

Openness to Experience entails a willingness to explore new ideas and opportunities. Obviously many organizations prefer to stick with familiar ideas and activities, and have built-in ways of maintaining the status quo.

Need for Cognition entails a joy of learning, and a willingness to devote the time and effort necessary to master new things. 

In his post on the origins of modern science, Tim Johnson compares the rival claims of magic and commerce. He points out that good science is open whereas magic is hidden and secretive; he traces the foundations of modern science to European financial practice, on the grounds that markets are social, collaborative, open, forums. But perhaps it makes more sense to see modern science as having two parents: from magic it inherits its Need for Cognition, a deep and passionate interest in explaining how things work; while from commerce it inherits its Openness to Experience, a broad fascination with the unknown. Obviously there have been individual scientists who have had more of one than the other, and some outstanding individual scientists who have excelled at both, but the collective project of science has relied on an effective combination of these two qualities.





Within most organizations, there are a few "early adopters" who are always keen to try out new stuff. But their strength can also be a weakness - they can sometimes be lured onto the next new thing before they have really mastered the previous new thing, let alone brought the rest of the organization up to speed. So they may get an ego trip from being two or three steps ahead of everyone else, but their personal need for cognition is sometimes compromised by a restless desire for novelty. There is a disconnect here.

And as Jose Baldaia points out, an open mind is not enough. What we need is "people with a mind open to collaboration with the representatives of the various existing disciplines inside and outside the organization". Some people think themselves open-minded, but their minds are not open in this direction.

So any form of disconnect can be a block to organizational intelligence. How can we collectively integrate the two sides of the expert generalist?

One domain in which this is critically important is healthcare. There is a simple view that healthcare is divided into generalists (called General Practitioners) and specialists (called Hospital Consultants). There is also a simple view that innovation in healthcare originates with specialists, and the GPs are merely a channel to transmit healthcare innovation to the patients. The specialists and healthcare researchers follow a policy paradigm known as Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) and what some people call Scientific Bureaucratic Medicine (SBM). This underplays the contribution of the GP as expert generalist. Des Spence complains about this in a recent blogpost.

"Generalism has been dismissed as inferior, has been left fatally undermined, and is dying, if not already dead. Anything encountered that is outside the modern telescopic specialist training programmes results in referrals to other specialties, choking the system in needless referrals. But we can’t blame modern medicine because it only reflects modern society, which is risk averse, unable or unwilling to accept uncertainty, and left in a paralysis of indecision. " A Conspiracy of Anonymity, January 2013 via @tetradian

Spence's title is a reference to Michael Balint's idea of the Collusion of Anonymity. I'm seeing Balint's name appearing more these days, including some links to what appears (from Twitter) to have been a fascinating Masterclass on Reflective Practice at the RCGP on January 26th. I wish I'd been there.

Perhaps the expertise of the GP is better described by what Joanne Reeve, drawing on Balint and others, calls Interpretive Medicine (IM). So I want to think more deeply about reflective practices in organizations, both heathcare and other organizations, and explore how this rich vein of "next practice" can inform my work on organizational intelligence.




Jose Baldaia, Creativity and diversity. To add value and meaning (May 2012)

Tim Johnson, Magic, markets and models of science (Jan 2013)

Art Markman, Picasso, Kepler, and the Benefits of Being an Expert Generalist

Joanne Reeve, Interpretive Medicine - Supporting generalism in a changing primary care world (Jan 2010)

Richard Veryard (ed), Reflective Practice (Storify, January 2013)

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